UNLIKELY LOVE

Submitted by Christian Mccul!och to Contest #5 in response to: Write a story about two unlikely people falling in love.... view prompt

'Unlikely Love'

by Christian McCulloch

(Short story: 5,176 words)


We hear Brook Benton's, 'Rainy Night In Georgia', as the House lights fade - pass the popcorn, Momma - get comfy.

'SMOKEY'S SANDBAR'

It's the sign above the bottles, the optics and the fly-spattered mirror. A big man, rolled up shirt sleeves with a bib apron is polishing glasses, rinsing them with a dry cloth. He must be Smokey. He holds one up to the light, breaths heavy on a smudge, then rinses some more.

Four men are talking at the elbow of the counter, or rather, three and one on the edge of their conversation.

At the other end of the bar, a large woman is sitting alone.

Smokey's polishing glasses in the middle - breath in the sleazy charm, Momma.

A disembodied hand feeds the Jukebox out of sight. We watch. SMOKEY'S SANDBAR ain't so empty as it appears.

Through the perspex we see the discs rotate, then stop with a click. An arm swings up, withdraws a 45rpm from the drum of records. It rotates smoothly through ninety degrees and lays the vinyl on a spinning turntable. The stylus arm swings out, hovers for a moment and drops. The needle hits the groove two beats into the recording.

The bar is suddenly full of the sound of Billy Holiday. Blues. 'What A Little Moonlight Can Do'. It's night-time atmosphere in day-light hours.

We can see the smoke rising from the large woman's cigarette. We can't smell it but we can see it's going into her eyes. She pulls it from her lips, thick lips, red lipstick. The colour is smeared slightly onto her top lip. Her elbow is pinned to the counter. Her two fingers point to the ceiling. The cigarette smoke begins a long curling climb to show how still the air is.

We don't see the woman's face, only her profile. We know it'll be full, fleshy, covered with a layer of powder that'll be less patchy in places around the downturned handles of her mouth; thicker where her nostrils meet the rouge on her cheeks - I'll bet she's been wearing that same face for years - it's our first view of her.

We take in the heavy eyeliner, the arch of her eyebrows, one drawn a little higher than the other. She looks as if she's considering what she's just heard to be a lie or a joke. Perhaps, it's the first sign that the drink in front of her is kicking in. It's more likely that the eyebrow pencil slipped and she couldn't be bothered to correct it.

The light from behind the bar catches her hair. This she has spent time on. Still, there're runaway strands that'll get the better of her as the evening draws on and the more she drinks - this is all speculation - absorbed in a second.

The cigarette docks between her pursed lips, glows and sends another white curl into the space she's looking through, then returns to pointing at the ceiling.

In front of her, there's a half-full pack of Lucky's with a lighter that could be gold, a clutch that could be peacock blue with a thin strap long enough to go over her shoulder and hang at her side. Now, it pools under the purse with a clasp of two pearls. It bulges but not with notes or coins - receipts for coffee stops, supermarket purchases, off-sales, dry-cleaning stubs, perhaps. Not money. There're three bills, right of centre; a promise of a tip for Smokey.

There's an ashtray that'll be replaced the second she stubs out the butt and reaches for the pack and the next one. There's a drink, of course. She has everything she needs at hand.

The stool beside her is empty. She pulls it a little closer towards her to separate it from the stools between her and the group of four men at the other end of the bar; three together, the fourth a little outside the territory they've staked out for themselves.

He's looking at the woman and sipping his drink - it looks as if he's been watching her for a long time - maybe all night - maybe every night for a week - what do we know?

The stool is close enough to be an invitation or sufficiently distant from its neighbour to separate one of the members of a new group for herself when they come - we think she's setting the stage for a Man-trap.

If asked, she'll give it up either way. It's close enough to her to require the question she'll be waiting for. She looks like the sort of woman who plays the 'Is-anyone-sitting-here' game a lot and has all the stock replies and come-ons.

She don't look as if she could be overly imaginative. She does look like a character out of a Raymond Chandler or an Elmore Leonard short story. She looks like she reads novellas rather than novels; Pulp Romance, Crime Fiction, not Nabokov – who knows?

It'll be interesting to hear her speak. Will she have a faded Southern Belle drawl or a snappy Upper-class British 'sparra-speak' with a tinge of Cockney and a 'Forgive-my-French' vocabulary.


Smokey takes a step to the right. It closes the gap, draws our attention to the group of men, one man in particular. We learn his name is Henry Stickman. It fits him better than his suit, One of his companions playfully pushes him. He raises his glass and goes back to watching the woman at the other end of the bar. We see he's more shabby than we first thought. Threadbare comes to mind. A tall, slim, skinny man in a threadbare suit. He pulls at the cuffs. We see they're frayed. The suit now looks ill-fitting. His tie, slightly askew and knotted too tightly. The creases in his shirt extend to the lines on his face; not old but worn and soft, almost gentle.

He smiles.

We see one of his teeth is crooked but the smile stretches to his eyes that are probably blue or grey. His smile crinkles the lines around his eyes – laughter lines you might call them.

Smokey leans across the bar into the powwow of the three men. They exchange some words. The men pull back and laugh together. We don't know what was said or who the Alpha male is yet. We go back to Henry Stickman. He makes no attempt to engage himself in conversation but he's clearly listening.

Stick Man is put together with pins. Long legs, long arms. Too tall to be a jockey. A harlequin, we can imagine bouncing up and down on a pogo stick, trying to catch sight of Huckleberry Finn on the other side of a tall, whitewashed, wooden fence or tightly folded up on the back of a racehorse, pumping his little arms and legs – a flea on the back of a horse; a tick-man on horseback – yee-ha!

Perhaps, he's a Look-Out man, peeping from a side door. A serious thought would fall off his face for lack of purchase. If he were a clockwork toy, he'd be Pinnochio's favourite Uncle with a pocket full of silly jokes that would even make a grave-digger smirk.

He throws light-hearted comments over his shoulder without taking his eyes off the plump poultry on the stool who holds her chin high with the heal of her hand. He looks at her as if she was a vision or perhaps he sees himself tucking into a tasty thigh, a drumstick. He looks as though he could do with a square meal.

He's smiling. His eyes are laughing, calling out, 'Hey, Big Momma – look at me! I'm a squirrel up a tree – feed me nuts and I'll be up and down your trunk, playing Hide 'n' Seek. There goes his tail; a question mark over his head about who he really is.

Smokey returns to his mesial position behind the bar. He places the polished glass to his left and selects another. It's the woman's turn to push the storyline along a little.

She pushes her empty glass forward and brings down a pointed finger. She grinds out the cigarette with short, sharp twists to show her impatience. She looks at her tiny time-piece on her chubby wrist. We understand her agitation is not directed at Smokey. Could she be waiting for someone, d'you think? She looks the type that men come and go at regular intervals but no one-man is expected to be on time.

A fresh drink replaces her empty glass. Smokey places a clean ashtray over the dirty one. He picks them both up and his hand disappears under the counter. It reappears holding the clean one. He slides it within her reach.

He's ready with a light as she thumbs open the flip-top pack of Lucky's and pinches out another. She pushes her head forward, two stiff fingers holding it steady. He shields the flame as if they're in a strong draught. Maybe he don't want the other customers to see.

Stick Man sees. Something's made him smile – d'you catch it, Momma? Now, we know there's a connection – what it is ain't exactly clear.

Smokey fades into the optics, the bottles and the fly-spattered mirror, leaving us and them to anticipate the next move.

The woman rests her chin on her hand again. She looks like Pablo Picasso's portrait, 'The Absynth Drinker'. Elbow on the counter – cigarette between her fingers – the smoke curls up the side of her face. She puts up a tactical smokescreen between herself and the man we suspect she knows is watching her.

Stick Man turns back to join in the conversation with the three men. He's not convinced that she's completely lost interest in him. He glances in her direction even as he keeps the conversation going.

The change of tempo at the bar comes with the change on the Jukebox. Billy Holiday's given way to Bonnie Tyler, 'I Need A Hero'.

'You waiting for someone. Miss Fish?' asks Smokey. He holds the glass up to the light, sees a spot, breaths heavy on it and starts his rinsing with the dry cloth.

'I'm waiting for Mister Right – Charlie,' she says. Smokey nods.

'Charlie Wright?' he asks. 'Don't reckon I've had the pleasure.' His expression gives nothing away. She ain't giving nothing away for free neither - it could be a joke. 'A right Charlie!' she snorts – it must be what passes for Britsh humour. It seems like the conversation's dead before it's begun.

'I'm holding out,' she says. 'It's gotta be soon.' She sucks on her cigarette, puts her head back – a she-wolf about to howl at the moon. She spews out a plume of smoke.

Smokey observes her from under tumbleweed eyebrows. He don't start conversations. His job is simply to listen, that and polish glasses. If he didn't have a thick, sandy lip-cover to go with his derelict eyebrows, you wouldn't know he had any facial features at all. The eyes aren't features, they're camera lenses. The nose is there to separate one side of his face from the other. The mouth don't move even when he's talking. The words come out like a badly dubbed script.

'Somewhere after Midnight, Smokey...' She slowly shakes her head and stirs her cigarette in the ashtray. She raises her hand and drops the lighted cigarette as if she's letting go of something in her life.

'My wildest fantasy,' she mutters under her breath. We lean closer to hear what she says next. Is she letting go of a long-remembered memory of someone before her bahookie started pouring over the edge of the barstool?

She's still a faded beauty. She could've been a fresh-faced young woman with a laughing personality and a teasing comment that would send the boys stiff-legged, revolving like wooden marionettes.

'It's gonna take a Superman, Smokey, to sweep me off of my feet,' she tells him. He nods knowingly. There ain't no answer to that, not that a barman can make. If he was a customer - her kinda customer, he'd say, I'd sweep you off your feet, Miss Minnie. Why don't you 'n' me take it back to my room. You can be my Scarlet O'Hara – I'll be your Rhett Butler. Carry you up to Heaven, I will. Whatcha say?

But we're being presumptuous. She could've been a Mary Poppins. More proper than Proper itself. Maybe, that tight little dress that's holding all them ripples and bulges in approximate place was all that was left in the props cupboard. It's gotta be red, ain't it? It sparkes when she lifts a cheek on the barstool.

'Where've all the good men gone, Smokes?' she asks. She's taken another cigarette from the flip-top box and we ain't even noticed. Smokey has. He's ready with a light.

'You'll find your streetwise Hercules one of these days, Miss Fish.' Smokey has a soft side. She knows it. She comes out with one of her British comments. 'You're a sweetie, Smokes. A top-notch Gent. Ain't no white knights in Smokey's Sandbar, just black nights and sour dreams.'

'Have a drink on me,' says a voice beside her. We didn't see him come in. Thank God, we thought we were in for a long drawn out monologue about how she'd been left at the altar or something. More like a folded wad of bills on the bedside table with no contact number or Thank You note. She was taking her cue from the lyrics being played on the Jukebox, anyhow.

Her face has done a full 360. She's looking up at him with doe eyes and a Greta Garbo sneer. Come a little closer, Hercules, There's room on my hobby horse for two, she's probably thinking – whatcha say, Momma?

'Anyone sitting here?'

That's the line we've been waiting for. We're interested to hear her reply. It'll have been well worked out. Probably two or three, maybe even four scriptwriters would've put their heads together for this one. It's pivotal. It's critical. Can't have a bar scene without a pick-up. Can't have a pick-up without a good one-liner. Is it gonna be the cliché or something cerebral or witty – gotta be catchy, at least.

She says, 'Somebody call the cops! It's gotta be illegal to look that good!'

What a disappointment. We were hoping for something like ...I was waiting for my Sugar-Daddy but you look sweet enough to me. - maybe not.

The big, swarthy man in the three-quatre length camel coat with the black fur collar introduces himself. 'Name's Alperen. It's Turkish for, 'Hero'. He smiles to show off his perfect white teeth. He hitches his lip so she can admire the gold tooth. It actually reflects the light – but that might've been added later.

'I thought you was foreign as soon as I laid eyes on you. I said to myself – Minnie, Minnie, that handsome Gentleman in the fine, fine coat and the dashing Fedora ain't from around these parts.' Minnie Fish has slipped from Cockney British into Southern Belle – who will she be next? I do declare.

Someone's pressed A4 on the Jukebox. It's Shirley Bassey with Carl Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra, 'Hey, Big Spender'. We're being treated to every cliché in the book. Hey! It was raining when we came in. Whatcha expect for a wet Wednesday afternoon? The Maltese Falcon? Casablanca?

Minnie says, 'You look like a man of distinction, refined...'

Wouldn't we like to know what's going on in her mind? We know what's going on in his. If he's looking to pop her cork, he's ten years too late and short of a six-pack.

Minnie Fish has made light work of her last drink. She only had a single sip. That's gonna hit rock bottom with a splash.

'What'll it be, Miss?' Smokey's reverts to being the cut-out management behind the bar, formal, respectful – soon to be invisible, an extension to the dry cloth and the glasses from the dishwasher.

'I'll have a Slow Comfortable Screw Against the Wall, please Smokey.' Smokey knows the Galliano adds the wall (as in Harvey Wallbanger). He'll add some herbal peppermint and garnish it with a slice of orange. It's what she always orders when she's with company, I guess. Smokey hates the way she sucks the pith – now, we're second-guessing the characters.

We leave Miss Minnie to cast her net. She's taken in the knuckle-duster jewellery, the chain around that thick, rubber log neck and an earring that a parrot could swing on.

Someone's had their fill of Shirley Bassey. She's been rudely kicked into touch with a wincing slow, prolonged scratch and a muttered curse. There's a lot of someone drunkenly stabbing at the Jukebox buttons. He shuts, 'Oi! Smokey! God-damn Jukebox ain't workin' proper – should call it a Junk Box! We hear a girl giggle.

'Take it easy, back there. That's a sensitive piece of equipment!' The voice says he's got a sensitive piece of equipment of his own. The high-pitched giggle sounds as if it's being muffled against a man's beer belly, Guns 'n' Roses teeshirt. - we've really got the feel of Smokey's Sandbar now, Momma.

'Smack it hard on the side and press, RESET. Smack it gently, mind!' suggests Smokey.

'Sympathy For The Devil' comes on. Smokey looks to Heaven.

We look at Stick Man. He's got a scowl on. It's probably been rolling up like a tank from St Petersburg when he missed his chance for a change. It's puzzling him the nature of the Turk's game. He's building himself up for a Blitzkrieg rage.

The song has put a raw edge to the storyline.

If every cop's a criminal and every Saint's a sinner, Stick Man's having a hard time keeping a lid on his sympathy that suddenly turned bitter when the Turk walked in the joint.

It appears that the three men with Stick Man are two-bit actors. No one stands out, yet each is as different as the next man. They're all big guys – Nicholas Pillegi's 'Wiseguys'.

One must've been a boxer, prizefighter – bare knuckles judging by the piece of bent pastry on his face between his eyes; a suit that might've been left over after Mario Puzo made Marlon Brando an offer he couldn't refuse. It's definitely pre-1970's.

One's a Brother. A neighbourhood hood who's still got a round or two in him.

The third looks like Wall Street. Hell! He even looks like Gordon Gekko or rather, Michael Douglas.

'Missed your chance there, Man,' says the Spook – that's not offensive. It's what the Guinea called him. 'Ain't gonna get no honey, if you ain't gonna climb no tree,' he tells Stick Man. Stick Man shakes it off. She's not interested. He's maybe given up. It's writ large on his mug – the jargon goes with the atmosphere, Momma.

For a moment the bar is in suspended animation. It's a freeze frame. Minnie Fish, poised, chin on hand. The Turk blowing of his knuckle-duster jewellery to the right. Neighbourhood homies to the left. Stick Man caught in a catatonic stare at what he's missed – can't have. Only Smokey has the moves.

He fades smaller and smaller like being sucked backwards down a tunnel. On either side are Line Dancers. Cowboys to the left. Cowgirls to the right.

It's 'Achy Breaky Heart', Billy Ray Cyrus. Take your partners – someone else's if you're on your lonesome.

Step, one-two. Lift your leg. Step back – step behind. Hips forward, one-two. Hips backwards, one-two. Side shuffle – side shuffle. Come together – move back. Heel 'n' toe – heel 'n' toe. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp – repeat.

The two lines, a step away from military dancing. Merging, converging – linking up, shuffling back. It's a coach load of high-stepping Guys and Gals on a Stag Party on their way to a rodeo – washed up at Smokey's Sandbar for a pit stop, a beer and a boogie.

The coach driver collects a manilla envelope from Smokey to say the coach has got a flat. They'll have to stay a while.

Smokey smiles and pulls another line of beers to be collected between dances. The Wiseguys settle back and watch.

All the dancers have hungry eyes and happy, snappy, silver-heeled boots that stomp and point at their partner's feet. By the end of the first number, it feels like Friday night.

But something's happening. What it is ain't exactly clear. There's a man with a gun over there – it's definitely time to beware, Momma.

The music is unravelling. The dancers are hurrying to their booths in startled huddles. The bodies fall away and a lone figure stands before the curtain, drawn to keep the afternoon light on the pavement where it belongs.

There's a hush. The shark is in the shallows. The tiny fish scatter.

It's Mako. They call him, 'Hammer Head' because his eyes are stretched wider than his ears, his mouth below his chin. Why he's here is anyone's guess for the moment. The one person who could know has his back to him.

Hammer Head's wearing a raincoat. The weather must have turned inclement. His shoulders are wet with rain. He tips his head forward. A trickle of water runs off the rim of the Pork Pie hat. He holds the sides of his raincoat and flaps them, sending a spray over those closest to him. They give him an exaggerated look of disgust, then move away quickly.

We watch him cut a wake through the dancers. He brushed a young black man aside. Mr Black wants to confront him, look big in the eyes of the white chick hanging on his arm. He thinks twice about it. The second time he backs off. He sees something in the man's shark eyes we can't see.

The room is thinning out like leaves before a garden blower until we're seeing the original scene when we came in – almost the same. There's one person who didn't arrive until later, He's talking and talking to Minnie Fish. He's talking but she's no longer listening. She's watching Hammer Head walking towards them. He has more than the touch of the gunslinger about him. We can see it on her face.

This is one little fish that might look like a whale on a barstool but she can pull herself into a hole quicker than a conger eel inside a drainpipe.

Smokey has gauged the distance, the direction, the speed and the intent. If there's gonna be a line of fire, Smokey don't want to be in it – who would? We see his eyes flick to below the counter where any self-serving barman would keep a pump action automatic pacifier. Smokey's into self-preservation. His life may be all about Smokey's Sandbar, he's not about to let it be all about his death.

The music has stopped. The conversation is on hold. We have a dramatic pause. We're waiting for the proverbial pin to drop.

The Turk looks at Minnie. He freezes. He checks the fly-spattered mirror behind the bar. His facial features drop. The last to fall are his eyebrows into a Mediterranean scowl. The weight pinches his eyes as if he's looking into the sun.

He flexed his shoulders. He transferred his weight onto his feet which were now either side of the stool. He's coiled to spring if he has to.

He removes Minnie's hand from his knee in a most gentlemanly fashion. He puts it on the bar where she can find it. He does it slowly, deliberately to create misdirection. It might give him the edge he needs. His other hand slips under his coat draped over his shoulders. He reaches for the bulge under his right armpit. He's not going for his wallet.

We're holding our breath.

If the Turk is breathing, it don't show. We have a view of Hammer Head's back, the Turk's back with his coat hanging over his shoulders, empty sleeves, his Fedora on the bar to his left. We see both men facing off in the mirror.

Someone has got to make the first move. Whoever it is won't be the one dead on Smokey's floor, we know that. It won't be good old Smokes, he's the original Invisible Man. It won't be Minnie Fish. If she's thought about it, she's changed her mind. Whatever it was.

We haven't seen her struggle to park her weight onto the stool. It won't be a dignified dismount, that's for sure. Especially after all those drinks. The Turk was one away from suggesting they take their meeting to the back seat of his car.

That leaves Stick Man and the Wiseguys. The Goodfellows have seen it all before. Not so for Stick Man. He's positively beaming. He could be counting down from ten. He's reaches four ...three ...two ...one – draw!

We hear two loud cracks. Small calibre. Bigger than a Saturday Night Special. It's Wednesday but that's no Magnum 45 or a Henry Colt Peacemaker. Definitely, Mako - Hammer Head, ain't here to make peace.

For revenge? A contract? A Crime of Passion? We'll never know. If the man sliding down the bar with the surprised expression on his face and the hole you could put your finger in knows, he sure as angels have wings, won't be telling anyone on this side of the celestial curtain.

As for Hammer Head? Well, he's flipped his coat around him and is already through the curtain – the curtain onto the pavement.

Smokey has blinked hard twice. I told you, he don't have eyes, he has camera lenses. If he's asked for a description, he'll bring up the stereoscopic 3D images. Except, of course, he'll tell the cops that the pictures are blurred and the negatives got destroyed in the fire. Smokey won't want any trouble. You don't run a dive bar like this for long if you've got a good memory for faces. He knows it. The cops'll know it.

The case will go into the circular filing cabinet beside some detective's desk along with the empty box of doughnuts and the last shift's Chinese Take-out. It'll be a cold case before the body arrives at the morgue.

Minnie Fish has had her scream, polished off her drink and is lighting a cigarette.

Smokey's peering over the counter photographing the corpse. In his professional capacity, the Turk is dead. End of story. Intermission's over. Time to get back to work. There're glasses to polish. The fat lady at the end of the bar needs a drink. Oh, and there's a body on the wrong side of the bar or is it the wrong body on the right side of the bar? Either way, it's Smokey's job to clear up. The cleaners don't get in for another four hours.

He flips the clean cloth off his shoulder and wipes the blood off the counter. No one seems to be waiting for a drink except Minnie. He'll see to her first, maybe pour himself one at the same time.

Fig, Fogg and Kaynan Able, the Spook, the Guinea and the Brother, Stick Man's drinking buddies, have detached themselves from their space at the elbow of the bar. They're picking up the Turk. Fig, or perhaps it's Fogg, has got the heavy end because he's the biggest. Kaynan has got one leg. Fogg or Fig has got the other. With his free hand, he rights the stool. Minnie Fish thanks him. Her face is white under all that powder. She pushes her hair outta her eyes and pulls the rest of herself together, tucks her bahookie onto the stool.

'You're welcome,' says the Goodfellow. It's the first time we've heard him speak.

Stick Man stands and pushes his back against the bar to let the three men pass with the body. The Wiseguy who replaced the barstool will hold the backdoor open. The afternoon light rushes in and out again. It looks like it has cleared up and the rain's stopped. The backdoor closes.

Stick Man saunters around the bar towards Minnie Fish, He's wearing his pick-up smile. He might not have a gold tooth, half of Fort Knox on his fingers but he's got nice eyes, probably dove grey, soft and gentle. The lines on his face stand out when he grins.

Minnie Fish notices what a kind face he has when she's close up. She'd probably describe it as, accommodating. He might be a little shabby looking but under the creases and fraying he's got a tight body – bet he works out, eh? Definitely, she's thinking he'll look better outta his clothes than in them – there's no mistaking that look, Momma. He's got that Hero look about him.

'I'm glad I held out,' she says.

Miles Davis is playing a little light jazz from the back of the bar. There's a lazy sax and a rich purple voice floating across the dancefloor. If there's a smell of cordite, we can't smell it.

The baritone notes circle and settle as Stick Man slides the barstool closer to Minnie. She slinkily puts her elbow on the bar. She shifts her weight to face him. Stick Man has the stool in two hands. He pauses for a moment.

We're waiting for that one-liner, 'Anyone sitting here?' Stick Man gives a little laugh as if he knows we're waiting to hear it. He ain't gonna say nothing.

A boy in farm dungarees appears with a bucket and a mop on wheels. He sets to work. 'Jeezus, Mr Sands – gotta have overtime for this,' he complains.

Smokey ignores the boy. He carries three glasses and a bottle that looks like it could be tequila to the occupied end of the bar. He fills each glass without a single drop being spilt. He passes one to Minnie. He pushes a glass in front of Stick Man. 'On the house,' he says. He raises his glass. The others do the same. They knock them back. Smokey exhales loudly. He doesn't say it but we know he needed it.

'I'll leave you two to it,' he says and floats away.

We need some answers before the cops arrive. - if they're coming at all. Cops don't do well in Smokey's Sandbar. They tend to stand out. Sore thumbs – know what I mean?

'You know the man?' asks Stick Man.

Minnie Fish has a cigarette in her mouth. She pushes her face forward for Stick Man to light her up. He's seen how Smokey's done it. He does the same. The cigarette bobs up and down as she sucks and answers his question.

'The guy with the gold tooth? I've never seen him in my whole life. The little fellah with the gun is my ex-husband.'

'Ex, you say?'

'Ah-huh. I guess they must've let him out today.'


THE END


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